Breakthrough in Using CRISPR to Target Fat Cells & Help with Obesity

Fat is pivotal for life; however, excessive amounts of it have been linked with numerous health issues. This is why studying fat and adipose tissues is crucial for a better understanding of obesity and other related health problems.

However, the structural differences in the fat cells and their distribution in the body impede this process. 

Steven Romanelli, Ph.D., a former member of the Ormand MacDougald laboratory explains that fat cells differ from other cells in the lack of one-of-a-kind surface receptors and they only account for a minority of the cells in the fat tissue. 

But, this new study sheds light on a potential better way to study fat cells.

Breakthrough in Using CRISPR to Target Fat Cells

The new paper, published in the Biological Chemistry journal, notes that one tool, known as CRISPR-Cas9, helped them transform molecular biological research. 

Romanelli explains that the major challenge in adipose research was that you have to commit plenty of time if you want to explore the gene’s function, as well as money and resources to develop a transgenic mouse. 

The traditional way of developing these models included breeding mice with a mutation to remove or introduce some genes of interest. Romanelli emphasizes that this process can require more than a year and tens of thousands of dollars.

On the other hand, CRISPR-Cas9 has helped them revolutionize this process. This is a gene-editing method consisting of an enzyme Cas9 which is able to break DNA strands and a piece of RNA that guides it to a specific location in the genome for editing. 

This method is packed into a non-harmful virus to be delivered into the cells. It’s been successful for studying the liver, heart, neurons, and skin cells, but never for a specific adipose cell known as brown fat, until now.

The CRISPR Helped into Targeting Specific Cells of Fat 

The team used this method to target brown fat. This specialized adipose tissue generates heat and maintains the core body temperature. 

Romanelli explains that they shortened the period that can last anywhere from two weeks to a month to generate the transgenic mouse and lowered the cost to less than $2000. 

This method lowers the time and costs and also democratizes the research so that any other lab which does molecular biology can also do it. 

Moreover, the team also used the method to remove several genes at once, a fact that could be of aid in understanding the pivotal molecular pathways better. 

By using the CRISPR-Cas9 elements, they knocked out the UCP1 gene which defines brown adipose and allows it to produce heat, in adult mice. These mice adapted to the loss of the gene and kept their body temperature during the cold conditions that may indicate other paths included in the temperature homeostasis. 

For Romanelli, these are early results but show that this technique is a pivotal step towards a better understanding of fat tissues.